The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Interview

The folks at Sydney Morning Herald have published an article-style interview with CD Projekt RED senior level designer Peter Gelencser, and in case the title of the article didn't clue you in, it's about the open-world The Witcher threequel. Here's an excerpt on the Polish studio's approach to world building:
I was amazed, and immediately asked just how in the hell a team of designers and artists is meant to built something so vast. "By breaking it down into smaller tasks," was his very practical response. "When you have such a large chunk of something, it would be foolish to just start throwing darts at a map, saying, 'Oh, I want something... there!'"

Not surprisingly, the starting point for a world of this size is the underlying terrain - the islands, the mountains and plains, the rivers. Gelencser's team then looked at this naturalistic landscape and filled it in a very organic way. "We consider how we would populate that terrain if we were people with particular characteristics," he said. "So, we'll make a settlement here because it makes sense: it has a nice stream for water, a forest for food and wood..."

"The other approach is when you say, 'We need something here because it's quest dependent,'" he went on. "Alright, so we need to have a bridge, so let's try to place one where it makes sense. That will involve cities on each side of the bridge, which will require facilities to support the cities, and so on and so on. So we are creating something that makes sense."

"That fills a lot of the world," he said, "and then occasionally we throw in a wildcard. Some unexpected human remains, something interesting like that."

Of course, this kind of organic, real-world approach can tend to produce towns and cities that are believable, organic, and ultimately not very interesting, and the design team took this into account. "We spin the bottle sometimes," he said, smiling. "Maybe this part looks too ordinary because we've spent so much time making sure it makes sense, so let's twist that!"

"So okay, let's..." He waves his hands in the air for a moment while thinking of something appropriately random. "Let's throw a meteorite there, see what happens! Let's consider how people would react to that and adapt to that situation. So that's another approach in how we work."

"So that's how we do it: come up with the big picture, and then we go smaller and smaller and smaller."